ROBERT BURNS STILL A VITAL INFLUENCE IN FREEMASONRY
THE NEW AGE - FEBRUARY 1951
When Masons speak of Robert Burns, they instinctively think of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge No. 2 of Edinburgh, Scotland, for it was there that Burns was made Poet Laureate of the Lodge in 1787 - the year he became affiliated with that Lodge. The same honor was accorded Rudyard Kipling in 1905, when he also was made Poet Laureate of that Lodge.
John Greenleaf Whittier was so impressed when he received a sprig of heather in blossom that he wrote a poem of twenty-nine stanzas honoring Burns. Speaking of “wild heather-bells and Robert Burns,” he referred to “the deathless singer and the flowers he sang of live together,” and then exclaimed:
“No more these simple flowers belong To Scottish maid and lover ;
Sown in the common soil of song. They bloom the wide world over.”
The “aristocracy of blood and nobility of intellect” intermingled in the membership of Canongate Kilwinning. This Lodge meets in St. John’s Chapel, which is probably one of the oldest Masonic lodge rooms in the world. In 1128, Holyrood Abbey and Palace were started, and skilled craftsmen were employed in the construction. This established the tradition that the Lodge was an operative body, and there was identification with the Abbey for many years because the Mmsons dated their corporate privileges from Kin g David’s charter to the Canons of Holyrood. In 1677, they identified themselves with the general body of Freemasons of Scotland and accepted a warrant from Mother Kilwinning No. 0, which at that time was exercising the functions of the Grand Lodge.
Canongate Kilwinning Lodge became completely speculative in the year 1735 and took an important part in the formation and inauguration of the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1776. Because the building where it meets was once an Abbey, the lodge room is called a Chapel and the banquet hall a Refectory. The Chapel contains an organ that is probably the oldest in Scotland, dated 1759. This organ is unique in that its pipes are all made of reeds and is the only one in existence on which songs of Burns were played in his presence. The Bible on the altar bears the date 1589. The Chapel is a room about 30 by 40 feet. The altar in the center of the lodge room rests on a black and white mosaic rug about ten feet square. Facing the East from the altar, one sees but two steps. The third step is directly behind the Master’s Pedestal and only large enough for the Master’s chair. Thus, anyone invited to the East is never on a level with the Master. The Wardens and Memb ers sit on a level.
The records indicate that William R. Smith, 32 degree, was appointed gardener of the United States Botanic Garden in 1853, and became the first superintendent of the gardens in 1863 or 1864, when the annual maintenance appropriations first made provision for the pay of a superintendent instead of a horticulturist, as provided in former fiscal year appropriations. Mr. Smith continued to serve as superintendent until his death in 1912. In his later years Mr. Smith spent a good deal of his spare time in collecting data, manuscripts and books of and about Robert Burns. In his will he specified that his Burns collection should go to the late Mr. Andrew Carnegie if he would erect and maintain a building to house it, but Mr. Carnegie, while deeply interested in the Burns collection, felt that it was not large enough to justify the erection and maintenance of such a building. Later on, Mr. Smi th’s executors entered into negotiations with James D. Richard son, Grand Commander of the Supreme Council, 33 degree, Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Southern Jurisdiction, U.S.A., and John H. Cowles, then Secretary General, to place in the House of the Temple the Burns collection on condition that it be made availaHe to the public free of charge. A room approximately 25 by 100 feet was set aside to house the 5,000 volumes comprising the collection, and visitors to the House of the Temple ar e invariably shown this room and its collection of Burnsiana on their tour of inspection of the building.
When en route to Europe, Mr. Smith disembarked on the rocky island of St. Helena where Napoleon had been kept prisoner. On Napoleon’s death, his remains were buried there until 1840 when, as a result of negotiations between the French and British Governments, they were exhumed and removed to the Hotel des Invalides in Paris. It was, of course, some years after Napoleon’s remains had been transferred to Paris that Mr. Smith visited St. Helena, but quite naturally the main attractions on that desolate isle ar e “Longwood” (the name given to Napoleon’s quarters) and his place of burial.
Overshadowing Napoleon’s burial plot stood a Weeping Willow tree. Mr. Smith was a horticulturist of top rank. He was permitted to take with him several sprigs, twigs, switches and cuttings from that Weeping Willow tree. These were brought by him to Washington, D, C., and nurtured in the Botanic Garden, Seedlings from these plantings, were later transplsnted in Potomac Park and today the million tourists a year who visit Washington turn admiring eyes on these beautiful Weeping Willow trees that stand twenty to thirty feet back from the water’s edge.
Probably not one tourist in 10,000 realizes the connection of these
trees with Napoleon’s grave site on the Isle of St. Helens, and
some of those who do know the origin of these Weeping Willows may
wonder why a Republic like the U.S.A. should want any cultural
reminder of the Corsican General who showed himself to be called
“Emperor.” Investigation shows that Masonry, after the restoration
of order in France, sustained Napoleon because, though Emperor, he
acknowledged, the right of a people to select its ow n rulers, and
was at the head of a nation refusing to receive back its kings. He
argued with firearms the great cause of the people against Royalty,
the right of the French people to make even a Corsican General
their Emperor, provided that was their wish.*
Canongate Kilwinning Lodge still has among its membership the blue-bloods of society and culture. Masonry in the U.S.A. feels justifiably proud that among the active members of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge is John Henry Cowles, 33 degree, Sovereign Grand Commander of the Supreme Council (Mother Council of the World) , Washington, D.C.
Inasmuch as Canongate Kilwinning Lodge is so intimately associated with Robert Burns and memories of him, perhaps it may not be amiss to refreah one’s mind with a few of his more familiar lines, such as:
The rank is but the guinea stamp- The man’s the gowd for a’ that!
The honest man, though e’er so poor, Is king o’ men, for a’ that!
The pith o’ sense, and pride o’ worth, Are higher rank than a’ that.
It’s comin’ yet, for a’ that- That man to man, the warld o’er, Shall brithers be for a’ that.”
* Napoleon was thought to have been initiated in Egypt, while First Consul of France, some time between 1795 and 1798.